Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

*. I guess I have to start with a prefatory note saying that the version of this movie I just watched is the Special Edition which was released in 1980. I was going to watch the Director’s Cut that came out in 1998 but the disc in the three-disc set I’d borrowed from the library was so damaged I couldn’t play it. Seriously: what do people do with these things? Use them for coasters? But I’ve ranted about this before.
*. Anyway, I think the main difference with the Special Edition is that we get to see inside the mothership. Which is kind of underwhelming anyway. Even Spielberg didn’t like it (he preferred keeping it a mystery) and took that scene back out in his Director’s Cut. So I guess you pick your disc and take your chances.
*. I honestly can’t remember what I thought of this the first time I saw it, so I guess it didn’t have the same impression it had on me that it did on others. It was a big hit though, riding the new youth demographic to blockbuster heaven (it came out the same year as Star Wars). But how good is it?

*. Spielberg got the sole writing credit but apparently it was the work of many hands (Paul Schrader wrote the original draft but then wanted his name taken off the project due to creative differences). It’s all a bit of whimsy. Spaceships cruising all over the world, being seen by millions, and yet they remain the stuff of tabloid headlines? Apparently they hide in clouds! Meanwhile, why does such a high-ranking official as Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) not have a translator on his staff when in the field? I mean, I can understand having to use Bob Balaban in a pinch, but then after picking him up in the desert they take the erstwhile cartographer on as a full-time member of the team? What?
*. I find the build-up to still be fun, with Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) chasing his dream after getting sunburn on half his face, but the climax is empty and dull. David Thomson: “thirty years ago, when we were just babes, the climactic light show was awesome.” But it’s more than forty years ago now and Star Wars is still a thrilling adventure story and Close Encounters is just a bunch of Christmas lights hung about a rock in Wyoming. Aliens came all this way just to play Simon with us? They must not think we’re very bright.

*. But how could it be otherwise? I find this to be a movie that is in some essential and even deliberate ways soft-headed. So much so that even critical praise of it takes on this same quality.
*. Pauline Kael saw it as a celebration of “the best-humored of all technological-marvel fantasies. It has visionary magic and a childlike comic spirit, along with a love of surprises and a skeptical, let’s-try-it-on spirit. It sends you out in a sate of blissful satisfaction.” In her review of E.T. Kael would be explicit about the feeling such films engender: “Like Close Encounters, E.T. is bathed in warmth, and it seems to clear all the bad thoughts out of your head. It reminds you of the goofiest dreams you had as a kid, and rehabilitates them.”
*. I think if you love Close Encounters it’s for these qualities. After originally pursuing Steve McQueen for the part of Neary Spielberg came to realize that what he really wanted was not a manly man but a man-child, someone who reminded him of his own sense of childhood wonder staring at the stars. That’s the way this movie works, if it works for you at all.
*. I want to stick with the mushiness of the ending because it relates to three critiques that I think can be leveled at the movie.

*. (1) In the first place, the movie is, chronologically and thematically, very much smack in the middle of the great run of paranoid conspiracy thrillers that were so thick on the ground in the late 1970s. Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Parallax View (1976), Marathon Man (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Coma (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Once again we have the normal Joe determined to find out “the truth” that’s being concealed behind a vast (really vast, in this case) government cover-up.
*. In some ways Close Encounters would be the most influential of all these films, as its tropes would become the guiding mythology of The X-Files and much else. Before this time the whole “alien abduction” theme was pretty marginal to mainstream culture. After this it would take off. But placed alongside those other conspiracy movies I mentioned how tame and inoffensive it seems. Compare Roy and Jillian looking down on the landing site to Beatty in the rafters of the convention hall, Sutherland above the pod facility, or Michael Moriarty discovering the secret lake of alien ooze in The Stuff (1985). Here there is nothing sinister going on, to the point where it’s unclear why they’re bothering to keep it a secret. The conspiracy was well intentioned and there was no need for feeling paranoid about it. The government doesn’t even kill the farm animals it leaves by the side of the road as a warning but only puts them to sleep for a while. This is a conspiracy thriller that makes the paradoxical point that we have nothing to worry about. Or, as Gene Siskel put it on Sneak Previews, it has the “awfully nice message ‘Don’t be afraid of the unknown, seek it out.'”

*. (2) Audiences have always had trouble with the casual way Roy abandons his family. In his defence, it does seem as though Ronnie (Teri Garr) dumps him, in a one-side telephone call that hints at irreconcilable differences. Still, it is abrupt, and as their kiss on the roadway makes clear he’s clearly thinking of moving on. Also, it’s worth noting that he dumps Jillian as well at the end, after the hint that there might be some romantic connection brewing there.
*. This is a point that Spielberg became sensitive to as well, saying that it was a young man’s movie that dated more than any of his others, in that he couldn’t imagine, after having kids of his own, doing what Roy does. Still, he finds it to be a “sweet, idealistic odyssey of a man who gives up everything to follow his dreams.” What it underlines though is Roy’s essential childishness. He even gets to put on red pyjamas at the end to taken by the hand and led aboard the ship by a little girl. An ascension, or reversion to some state of pre-maturity? So good-bye wife, kids, and even puberty with all of its embarrassing body hair and sexual organs.
*. (3) One must become as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is my final point about the ending. Not an original point, but necessary. This is the SF version of the Rapture, with Neary and others being taken up from the mountaintop, all to the sounds of a heavenly chorus. It’s no mistake when one of the scientists looks up to the mothership and says “Oh, my God,” or when the crowd in India chant “He has come” in Hindi.
*. But as with the sugar-coating of the conspiracy angle this clothing of the ending in the borrowed robes of religion strikes me as dangerously anodyne. What I think of more than anything now when I see the line-up of Rapture cadets in their jumpsuits is the uniforms of the tragic “away teams” of the Heaven’s Gate cult. I know they were Trekkies, but were they also fans of this movie?

*. Is the title ever explained? It comes from the writings of ufologist J. Allen Hynek but I don’t recall the different levels ever coming up for discussion. Did I miss it? Probably. Or was it assumed that everyone in 1977 knew Hynek’s work?
*. The players are all good, starting with Dreyfuss as the scruffy and half-sunburned Everyman. There’s one of the great child performances of all time by Cary Guffey as Barry. The casting of Truffaut was inspired. Spielberg just wanted his face, but as Thomson observes, his “lack of fluent English placed him quite nicely somewhere between humans and aliens.”
*. All the iconic scenes involve the light show — I can’t remember any scenes just with people interacting — and the effects are state of the art for 1977. Roger Ebert (in 1977): “the last thirty minutes are among the most marvelous things I’ve ever seen on the screen.” I doubt many people feel the same way today, though I think I’d still take what we get here ahead of the end of The Abyss, which would be state of the art ten years later, or any of today’s CGI gee-whizzery. There’s something about the effects here that are charmingly retro in a way that suits the theme of childish wonder. Spielberg, wary after shooting Jaws on location, wanted to do the whole movie in studio, and a number of the process shots with matte paintings look borrowed from an earlier generation of filmmaking. The scene on the road, for example, might have come from Invaders from Mars (1953). But it works with the little boy out late at night, looking at spaceships.

*. So it’s just what its greatest admirers love about it: a film suffused with the glowing Christmas-tree lights of childhood wonder. I mentioned how Spielberg wanted a child-man as his hero, but as his comments about Roy’s abandonment of his family indicate what he may have been thinking of was something a good deal younger or more infantile than that. Perhaps someone little Barry’s age. That is, around three years old. Or maybe as grown-up as the six-year-old girls who played the aliens.
*. Spielberg would later say that the image of Barry opening the door to all the alien lights outside stood as a good summary of his career up to that point: a child standing at a threshold of great promise and danger. That’s a universally relatable feeling, which is what gives the film its strength and is why it’s so fondly remembered today by people who first saw it when they were kids. As I began by saying, it didn’t have the same impact on me. I feel even more today that there’s something missing from it, even if it still has that childhood glow.

12 thoughts on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

  1. Alex Good

    After writing this I realized that there are some young people today who might not get the reference to Simon. Simon actually came out a year after this movie, so it might have even been inspired by it. In any event, behold and wonder!

    Reply
  2. fragglerocking

    It’s a long time since I thought about this movie, remember being amazed by it all back in the day and it gave me the warm and fuzzies. Now you’ve ripped it to shreds I don’t think I could sit through it again. 🤣 The Simon seems a particularly useless piece of kit.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      It’s a warm and fuzzy movie. And it does still have that glow. But I’ve grown up and it hasn’t.
      Simon was cutting edge back in the day. I imagine kids looking at it now and thinking what morons we must have been. But it was hard memorizing all those notes and colours in sequence!

      Reply
  3. Over-The-Shoulder

    It’s a nice films, with some iconic scenes, but you’re right – it hasn’t aged well at all. He is trying to capture that magical and innocent childlike wonder, but the question is, are children magical, or are they just plain stupid?

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I don’t have as rosy a view of childhood. But Spielberg does do great work with child actors, I’ll give him that. And this movie is sweet and innocent in a way that’s authentic. But the end feels flabby now.

      Reply
  4. Tom Moody

    The most important question about which edition you watched — mashed potato scene or no?
    Apparently Spielberg also vacillated about that one.
    In its initial theatrical run — I saw it as a young adult –Trumbull’s effects had heft. You could feel the weight of the mothership pressing down on you. His use of lens flares gave a sense of atmosphere and mystery — again maybe better in the theatre than at home.
    My beef back in the day was the typical Spielberg desire to be “cinematic” at the expense of common sense. The attack on Melinda Dillon’s house plays like a horror movie where a superior being toys with puny humans. Why would the aliens do this if their intentions were benign? Would they really take the trouble to ratchet up the tension by making screws slowly unscrew in heating vents or was that just for “a visual”? (Answer: a visual.)

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      I saw the mashed potato scene! Did he take it out of the Director’s Cut? Apparently the other scene special to the Special Edition was finding the ship out in the desert. That was neat.
      I agree totally about the attack on the house. It was like a dry run for Poltergeist or something. I guess he just wanted to play with the notion that maybe at this point the aliens weren’t benign. But it makes no sense. Not sure why they’re abducting all these people either.
      I think the effects were more dramatic back on its original release. We’ve been spoiled. But I think I still prefer them as effects over a lot of CGI.

      Reply
  5. Tom Moody

    I read some time ago that Spielberg cut the mashed potato scene (it had been much-parodied and ridiculed) but restored it after howls of outrage from fans. I can’t find any reference to that now.
    Per IMDb:
    –In the original, the scene begins with the kids arguing at the table. As soon as Roy walks into the room they immediately stop shouting. In the special edition, this portion is deleted and the scene begins with Ronnie handing Toby the mashed potatoes.
    Also:
    –The scene where Roy tosses bricks and bushes into his house so he can make the Devil’s tower replica was almost entirely removed in the special edition. That version only includes the portion of the scene where Ronnie actually leaves with the kids.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, I saw where they’d cut the bit with Roy hauling all the dirt and stuff into the house. I just figured the mashed potatoes scene was always there. Odd the way that movie came out. Usually you figure the Special Edition is more like what the director wanted, but I guess it was more of a studio cut here.

      Reply

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